This week my mother fell on the ice and broke both of her arms. For those of you who have never broken a bone, this type of injury typically take 4-6 weeks to heal. That’s a long time to be without your arms. Think about everything you need arms for. Eating, cleaning yourself, opening doors, clicking buttons, the list goes on… She says she feels like a Geefle from Sesame street; a fictional animal cursed with arms that cannot bend, unable to feed itself without assistance. I have a feeling I’ll be a busy guy over the next few weeks.
This is a good example of one of the most frustrating things about life; its unpredictability, its mathematical randomness. I like to think of life as something that can be predicted, organized, and manipulated. I dislike the idea of fate, and certainly a random fate. Maybe this has something to do with my training as an engineer. I like to understand how things work, to know how to manipulate them, and to make things work better. Good designs are predictable, stable, orderly, and improvements are incremental. Randomness feels unnatural and scary. It’s difficult to understand intuitively, hard to calculate mathematically, and it is extremely common in the real world. Random events can instantly destroy years of planning and effort if you’ve failed to account for the unexpected. Even that idea is frustrating. How can you plan for things you cannot anticipate? How can you be happy and successful in a world that is largely dominated by random unexpected events?
Nassim Taleb’s advice in his book The Black Swan was to live your life regarding yourself a character in an absurdist play. Things don’t make sense because they’re not supposed to! Humans are biologically wired to seek patterns. We see faces in clouds, or religious figures burned into toast. They don’t exist! They’re just figments of our biology trying to understand chaos. We see a small segment of random data and jump to conclusions because we’re programmed to do so. Endlessly seeking meaning or patterns where none exist can leave you feeling frustrated, afraid, and helpless.
If you’re not a fan of absurdist comedy, then I regret to be informing you that you’re likely living one. Fortunately, there are other techniques that you can use to help deal with the randomness of life. Stoicism offers two techniques for dealing with the absurd: causal fatalism, and mental triage.
Causal Fatalism: Letting Go of the Past
Causal fatalism is a term I’ve invented to describe the Stoic concept of fatalism with respect to the past. People live happier lives if they can let go of past events. Causal fatalism means accepting that the past cannot be changed, and acknowledging that time spent imagining how the present could be different if past events were different is wasted time. It sounds obvious in writing, but in practice it isn’t so easy. Everyone knows the past cannot be changed, but people are often plagued by what ifs. What if my mother had better boots, maybe she wouldn’t have slipped? What if the apartment building had put salt on the sidewalk a few hours earlier? It doesn’t really matter for two reasons.
Firstly, this kind of speculation is biased. What if a meteor had fallen from the sky and struck my mother shortly before she slipped on the ice? Then she’d be dead, but so what? That’s not what happened. People usually imagine fictitious alternate scenarios where things are better, but that’s completely biased, since there are just as many ways things can go wrong. If you’re going to consider alternatives, you should consider bad ones as well. There are infinite ways the present could be different. Considering a biased sample of them is wrong and misleading. Considering all of them is wasting time. Just forget it and deal with reality, absurd as it is.
Secondly, analyzing the past is only useful when it affects the future. Rather than worrying what could have been, it’s more practical to consider what could be done in the future to prevent further accidents. There’s nothing wrong with investing in better boots, or calling the apartment building and advising them to be more diligent in their snow removal. Maybe these measures could prevent future accidents. We’ll never really know because those events won’t happen. Prevention rarely gets the credit it deserves because you can’t measure how many accidents would-have-happened.
Mental Triage: Internalize Your Goals
Mental triage is a technique that helps you focus your energy on reasonable goals. When dealing with difficult life situations, you can divide them into three buckets:
- Situations we have complete control over
- Situations we have absolutely no control over
- Situations we have some (but not complete) control over
Situations we have complete control over have straightforward problems and solutions. They are easy to set goals for, since our actions alone dictate the final results. Don’t like the result you’re getting? You have no one to blame but yourself. Try harder.
Situations where we have absolutely no control should be ignored completely when goal setting. If one’s actions have no influence over the outcome, then any time spent planning or worrying about the situation is wasted time. Worrying that the sun won’t rise tomorrow? Forget about it. It’s not like you can make it rise or set. There’s nothing you can do.
In situations where we have incomplete control, internalizing goals helps you focus your energy on aspects internal to oneself. It is a psychological trick useful for avoiding the disappointment of failing to accomplish goals. Suppose you have a goal: to win a tennis match. In this situation, you have incomplete control. Practising can help increase your odds of winning, but there is a random element to the problem that is beyond your control, which includes how good your opponent is. You cannot control your opponent, or how well they play. An internalized goal removes the external elements from the goal: play the best game you are capable of playing. This goal can be accomplished regardless of whether you win or lose. It is directly correlated to whether or not you win the match, but your emotional reaction to the final result will be different. It’s a cheap dirty trick to play on your own brain, but you can use it to live a happier life. It’s okay to lie to yourself, especially if it improves you.